The Ministry of Health on Monday said that no fewer than 44 people were killed in bomb attacks on the symbolic cathedral seat of the Coptic Pope and another church on Palm Sunday.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, which also injured more than 100 people and occurred a week before Coptic Easter, with Pope Francis scheduled to visit Egypt later in April.
The assault is the latest on a religious minority increasingly targeted by Islamist militants, and a challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect them as part of his campaign against extremism.
The ministry of health said that the first bombing, in Tanta, a Nile Delta city about 100 km (60 miles) north of Cairo, tore through the inside of St. George Church during its Palm Sunday service, killing at least 27 people and injuring at least 78.
The ministry added that the second, just a few hours later in Alexandria, hit Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the historic seat of the Coptic Pope, killing 17 people, including three police officers, and injuring 48.
Sisi ordered troops be immediately deployed to assist police in securing vital facilities, a statement from his office said.
“The attack will only harden the determination (of the Egyptian people) to move forward on their trajectory to realise security, stability and comprehensive development,” Sisi said in a statement.
President Donald Trump, who hosted Sisi on April 3, in his first official visit to the U.S., expressed support for a leader he has said he plans to work more closely with on fighting Islamist militants, who Sisi identifies as an existential threat.
“So sad to hear of the terrorist attack in Egypt. U.S. strongly condemns. I have great confidence that President Al Sisi will handle situation properly,” Trump wrote on his official Twitter account.
Hundreds gathered outside the Tanta church shortly after the blast, some weeping and wearing black while inside, blown apart pews sat atop tiles soaked with blood.
“There was blood all over the floor and body parts scattered,” a woman who was inside the church at the time of the attack said.
“There was a huge explosion in the hall. Fire and smoke filled the room and the injuries were extremely severe,” another woman, Vivian Fareeg, said.
Islamic State’s branch in Egypt has stepped up attacks and threats against Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people and are the biggest Christian minority in the Middle East.
In February, scores of Christian families and students fled Egypt’s North Sinai province after a spate of targeted killings.
Those attacks followed one of the deadliest on Egypt’s Christian minority, when a suicide bomber hit its largest Coptic cathedral, killing at least 25 people.
Islamic State later claimed responsibility for that attack.
Islamic State has waged a low-level war against soldiers and police in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for years but is now targeting Christians and broadening its reach into Egypt’s mainland.
That is a potential turning point in a country trying to prevent a provincial insurgency spiralling into wider sectarian bloodshed.
Although Copts have faced attacks by Muslim neighbours, who have burnt their homes and churches in poor rural areas, in the past, the community has felt increasingly insecure since Islamic State spread through Iraq and Syria in 2014.